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FCC Inquires Into Its Own Authority To Regulate Communication Service Shutdowns 112

Posted by timothy
from the if-you-don't-have-anything-nice-to-say dept.
New submitter DnaK writes "The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing whether or when the police and other government officials can intentionally interrupt cellphone and Internet service to protect public safety. A scary proposition which will easily become a First Amendment issue. Does the FCC have the authority to [regulate local or state authorities' decision to] take down cellular networks if they determine there is an imminent threat? The FCC is currently asking for public input (PDF) on this decision." According to the article, "among the issues on which the F.C.C. is seeking comment is whether it even has authority over the issue. The public notice asks for comment on whether the F.C.C. itself has legal authority over shutdowns of wireless service and whether it can pre-empt local, state or federal laws that prohibit or constrain the ability of anyone to interrupt service." Maybe they just don't like being upstaged by BART.
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FCC Inquires Into Its Own Authority To Regulate Communication Service Shutdowns

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is potentially scary, but not surprising, considering the recent developments in the UK (with SIM cards being remotely disabled by the government after being "Vetted" and determined to be spamming)

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I picture the "discussion" like this,
      High Level Bureaucrat at desk in impressive office (to self) - "Can we shut down cell phone service when we want?"
      Answers self - "Of course we can. MWUHAHAHAHAHA!"
  • I didnt RTFA so STFU about it However i was wondering what is an imminent threat from a cellular network?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      IEDs are often cellphone-triggered. That said, it's far more likely that "imminent threat" would be taken to mean "speech we disagree with"...

      • by Anonymous Coward

        They just add a dead-man's switch to the IED and then it will blow up when it's cut off. Ta-da, cutting the signal increases the threat.

        • How are bombs blowing up randomly rather then at times when the bomber judges that they'll be most effective increasing the threat?

          • Dead man's switches aren't supposed to work that way, they are a play on mutual
            destruction and sort of a life insurance (ie: if I die I guarantee to take others with me)

      • by tlambert (566799) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:18PM (#39229111)

        IEDs are often cellphone-triggered. That said, it's far more likely that "imminent threat" would be taken to mean "speech we disagree with"...

        This will not change things with regard to IEDs, although it may change the IEDs to make them more dangerous. In general, it doesn't matter anyway, since IEDs rarely happen in the U.S., which is where the F.C.C. has jurisdiction, anyway, unless it's in a movie or in a television drama like N.C.I.S.. There is not a lot of unexploded ordinance lying around for the taking.

        Another poster suggested a dead-man's circuit so that shutting down the cell access for the bomb is rigged to trigger it. The workaround would be for the authorities to evacuate, THEN shut down the network. The work around for the workaround would be to enable a motion detector, such that evacuation then shutdown would be ineffective.

        On the bright side, if they think the way the parent poster does, it will only be a matter of time before it's a requirement to be able to shut down RFID in passports and credit cards, since that can be used to identify targets as well.

        Of course that's not possible, but the workaround there, if it was, would be to couple an RFID reader with a motion sensor and use IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) such that you are at risk if you are not carrying an RFID device on the terrorist approved list when you go past the motion sensor.

        Or to hack the system to shut down the RFIDs without the threat that the shutdown mechanism was intended to thwart, thereby disrupting commerce, as a terrorist act in itself. Of course ... then aren't the BART authorities who shut down the cell network guilty of a terrorist act? I guess it's an administrative action if I do it and a terrorist act if you do it.

        This is of course all ridiculous, and it's clear that what's really going on is a power grab to obtain the ability to shut down BART-like protests and/or flash-mob protests that are only protests when there are no police in the area to interfere with the protests.

        -- Terry

        • by sjames (1099)

          Then there's the next workaround, The cell network is disabled and the terrorists announce that buildings will fall when they re-enable it. What do authorities do, declare SF a permanent dead zone?

      • by ArcherB (796902)

        IEDs are often cellphone-triggered. That said, it's far more likely that "imminent threat" would be taken to mean "speech we disagree with"...

        No, it's not. The courts will allow shutting off cell networks for a national security issue. Life and limb trump free speech as shown with the "screaming fire in a crowded theater" example. Also, the public wouldn't be terribly upset if shutting off the cell networks for a few hours prevented a major or especially heinous terrorist attack, like cell phone triggered bombs in a day care center.

        The very second that the state shut down cell networks to silence critics is the second that every media outlet b

        • by 0123456 (636235)

          Life and limb trump free speech as shown with the "screaming fire in a crowded theater" example.

          Uh, quite the opposite, in fact. The "shouting fire in a crowded theater" case was about the government wanting to prevent people distributing flyers that opposed the draft in WWI, which might have saved some of the soldiers who died in that pointless war if they had refused to go.

          • Exactly. How long until cell phone coverage is shutdown during a protest because a change in public opinion would be a threat to national security? Cell phone are essential for reporting, especially when cops can take your equipment away because 'photography is now allowed'. Uploading picture as they are taken would allow the public to see what would remain hidden under load of disinformation. This is what corrupted government are really afraid about.

            Also next time an official say 'national security', remem

        • by DarkOx (621550)

          Except that terrorists strike where their efforts will be noticed. That tends to be where lots of people are. Disrupting the phone and radio networks (cb,ham) in such places is usually bad because what if someone needs to call for help? To bad you can't call 911 about that heart attack because the president happens to be in town today?

          Remember we don't have pay phones anymore.

        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          Life and limb trump free speech as shown with the "screaming fire in a crowded theater" example.

          Actually they don't. You're free to shout "FIRE" in a crowded theatre even if there isn't one.

          However, rights do not trump responsibilities. Your right to shout fire in a theatre must be balanced against the possible consequences - if someone gets trampled to death, you're responsible for manslaughter, possibly murder.

          Likewise all the libel and slander laws - you're free to say what you want, but you're also resp

          • by mcgrew (92797) *

            Unfortunately, these days with the Internet, people don't realize that their speech lasts a LOT longer than the moment it was uttered - it effectively lasts forever, and what was said decades ago can come back to bite you.

            Can, yes, but not necessarily "does". About fifteen years ago there was a hilarious parody of Blue's News called "Yello There," and after being online for years, there is only a single trace of it left, and that's in the wayback machine's copy of my old gaming site ("Kneel" and I were cros

    • by R3d M3rcury (871886) on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:37PM (#39228945) Journal

      Actually, I just dislike "imminent threat." It sounds like a Hollywood screenplay. Evil Bomber trying to kill The President has placed an explosive device along his route which can be triggered by a phone call and it's up to two cops to track down the bad guy before he sets it off.

      I mean, okay, in that scenario, you just say, "Why not just shut down the cell-towers? The phone attached to the bomb can't receive a signal." The President is safe and the two cops can leisurely go about trying to find the bad guy.

      The problem comes up, though, that if it's such a good idea, why not just shut down the cell service along The President's route as Standard Operating Procedure. After all, we can't count on the Evil Bomber notifying the police. There could be one out there, so this will prevent it from detonating. Oh, and we should shut it off around whatever place The President is staying, too. For as long as he's staying. After all, it's for his safety. Suddenly, there is no threat--imminent or otherwise. But because you have the capability, why not use it?

      What about other situations where there might be a danger? Protesters are known to have bombs. There's a protest planned for tomorrow at City Hall. Maybe it'd be a good idea to shut down cell-phone service--y'know, just in case. After all, we're talking about safety here--you can't be too safe. And, as a by-product, it'll keep them hippy kids from tweetin' and uploading images and videos when the cops go in with their clubs. But that's not what it's about, of course. It's about safety.

    • by storkus (179708)

      The Times article has a good example: a phone-controlled bomb or similar device. There's also a more general human C&C such as the Mumbai terrorist attack, which is apparently why satellite phones are banned in India now.

      OTOH, the BART fiasco was a knee-jerk reaction so typical these days and that seems to be what prompted the FCC to do this. It is also clearly NOT an "imminent threat".

      Here's the problem I see: there is a very clear ban against jammers in the USA, yet you see US manufacturers all over

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        They didn't use jammers. They shut off their pico cells that run in the stations.

  • by Bodhammer (559311) on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:11PM (#39228807)
    Seems to work ok in Caracas, Havana, Damascus, Cairo, Republic of Geogia,. Moscow, and Tiananmen Square. I think the government of every repressive dictatorship should be able to disrupt free speech, and public assembly. What's wrong with that?
    • by Bodhammer (559311)
      Oh yea, forgot Tehran...
    • by i.r.id10t (595143)

      Sadly, I have to wonder if at that point there will be people like these [jpfo.org] around to say "enough is enough". The 2nd ain't about duck hunting...

    • Generally SLashdot users seem to find it totally acceptable that the FCC control how companies run networks. So it follows naturally the FCC has the power to shut down networks too.

      You can't have it both ways people.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Yes, you can. You can insist that the FCC has such powers only for the purpose of maximizing free speech for the public good. Shutting free speech down would violate their mandate and render them a non-entity.

        • You can insist that the FCC has such powers only for the purpose of maximizing free speech for the public good.

          So here we see that sjames understand fuck-all about human nature and the use of regulation.

          The simply fact is that no matter how many times you start with what you say as the core, it will be added onto by any government body over time until, like the irritant to the regulatory body it is, all traces of maximizing public good are gone.

          If you haven't learned by now that the function of government a

          • by sjames (1099)

            I see. So the only answer is to nuke Washington and declare anarchy? I'm sure that'll be a HUGE improvement over my suggestion.

  • by DnaK (1306859)
    For looking at my story and accepting it. Even if it was not selected as the article to hit the front page because of my terrible formatting and editing. I'm new to slashdot and still trying to learn the ropes! Please be forgiving:) This news story caught my eye and immediately scared me a little that the FCC has any type of authority to shut down communications networks. How can shutting down access to emergency service numbers and other people ever help? Are we going to shut down local networks if we
  • Imminent Threat (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jamesh (87723) on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:25PM (#39228879)

    I would hope that if the threat is significant and "imminent" that the FCC would just do whatever the hell they wanted, laws be damned, on the sole condition that the decision maker is held personally accountable for their decision after the threat has subsided, and that their accountability would be judged by the people.

    • Former president Richard Nixon felt that way. So he tried to rig a federal election to ensure that the "Wrong" people didn't get in.
    • You must be new here.

      In a situation like this, there would be some lengthy investigation, followed by the public firing of the lowest guy in the chain of authority that phoned AT&T/etc to tell them to turn off their networks.

  • As much as I like the FCC, what in the world would they need to do this for? This seems like a terrible way of stopping the "enemy" from communicating by stopping Citizens from communicating. The FCC has had my back in the past with our thought process on how communications should be handled, I'm glad they are asking for public input on this.
  • People use their cell phones for a lot of things, including calling for help from the police, fire, and other community protection services. There really aren't any public pay phones around any longer, so we rely upon our cell phones in order to contact authorities about dangerous situations. I think that BART should have been severely reprimanded and fined a LOT of $$ for cutting off the signal in San Francisco. Those that made the decisions should have been charged (IMO) with reckless endangerment of the
    • with the riots in England, there was all sorts of scary talk about rioters using mobiles to organize, but then we hear about concerned citizens using mobiles to organize cleanups

      • by woboyle (1044168)
        Well, I am ALWAYS of the opinion that more communication is better than less. It also lets the authorities more easily monitor the "opposition" in order to detect those with "bad" intentions. If they cut off all cellular communications, then the real terrorists will simple fall back to other means to coordinate their actions, such as public WiFi access points, satellite links, etc.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Well, I am ALWAYS of the opinion that more communication is better than less. It also lets the authorities more easily monitor the "opposition" in order to detect those with "bad" intentions. If they cut off all cellular communications, then the real terrorists will simple fall back to other means to coordinate their actions, such as public WiFi access points, satellite links, etc.

          Don't get me wrong, giving any agency the power to do this is scary as hell to me. And I'm assuming this is not intended as something that would be done long term. However I did not RTFA, so I may be mistaken. Even so, these are supposed terrorists we're talking about. They are not the CIA or a covert branch of a national military. I seriously doubt there are fall back plans or redundancy in most cases. They trigger a bomb with a cell phone. They don't add secondary WiFi or satellite detonation devices.

          Hel

          • by woboyle (1044168)
            I absolutely agree with everything you said. The failed "attempts" to breach our security has resulted in a greatly overloaded response, costing us million$, and the enemy zip/zero/zilch. Plus, they get to eliminate some of their more vulnerable "allies"...
  • I've got a public comment, best expressed with a single finger. Yeah! You're number 1 FCC!
  • by wbr1 (2538558) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:03PM (#39229053)
    The FCC does not need the authority. A letter to the carrier with DHS letterhead should be enough. It makes everyone else fold up, including verisign. [slashdot.org]
    • Actually the FCC already has the authority to shut down any radio communications anywhere in the USA. The only thing under discussion here is the speed at which they can do it - immediately, or after a FCC memorandum/order and several months of processing time.
  • Govt Resource (Score:3, Informative)

    by Harkin (1951724) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:03PM (#39229057)

    The airwaves are a government regulated resource which it reserves the right to limit access to at its discretion. Way things are set up, you could quite legally, totally loose access to the airwaves at any time for a verity of reasons. I am fairly confident the constitution protects your right to free speech, not your right to emanate electromagnetic waves at any power level or frequency. One might suggest a 28th amendment establishing that right if it is a major concern. In the end, denying access to wireless communications while inconvenient, does not inhibit the ability to speak, only the ability to disseminate information which isn't a protected right.

    You have the right to say, write, or believe what you want. Beyond your mouth, you do not have the right to access the means to tell anyone else.

    Remember, you choose to be dependent on your cell phone and the Internet.

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      I am fairly confident the constitution protects your right to free speech, not your right to emanate electromagnetic waves at any power level or frequency.

      Which part of the constitution lets the government tell you what you can and can't do with radio waves?

      Would you claim that the first amendment would be satisfied if the government said 'you're free to print whatever you want, but we're banning the printing press and anyone found with one will be executed'?

    • by artor3 (1344997)

      The airwaves are a public resource, which we allow the government to regulate for us to prevent the tragedy of the commons. That doesn't give the government the right to take that resource away from us entirely.

      It would be like asking a friend to house-sit for you (you know, feed the dog, take in the mail, etc) while you're away, and coming home to find that he's changed the locks because he's worried you might make a mess of the place.

      Normally I think /. is excessively paranoid about this sort of thing, b

    • The government owns the airwaves, but it also has rules on the reasons for which it can take away access to them once granted.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Way things are set up, you could quite legally, totally loose [reference.com] access to the airwaves at any time for a verity [merriam-webster.com] of reasons.

      I don't think that sentence says what you meant to say. Typos aren't that bad until they completely change what you're trying to communicate.

      I hope you're not a programmer, if so it explains all the bugs I see. Those errors got past the compiler and now you have a bug. The program runs, but it doesn't do what you wanted it to do.

  • Its unfortunate that as our continent slides deeper and deeper into a fascist wet dream we feel satisfied quibbling over minutia on the internet. I love this forum, some of the most engaging and thought provoking conversations take place here, but I feel like it might be time for the smart people to organize something in meat space. In terms of systems theory, we have the energy and venue, but they have a stranglehold on communication. For this race to survive we need some big sacrifices.
  • by kawabago (551139) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:15PM (#39229099)
    Having the ability to disrupt cell phones will give officials a false sense of security. Evil doers will plan around the cell system and police won't know what they are doing.
  • by saleenS281 (859657) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:27PM (#39229139) Homepage
    Not to sound too cliche, but freedom isn't free. If the cost of the government not being allowed to shut down our communications is the occasional bomb being triggered by a cellphone, so be it. This is rife for abuse. Oh, people are protesting in DC and they want to send in the riot patrol? I hear there might be a bomb in the area, better shut down the networks!
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Not to sound too cliche, but freedom isn't free. If the cost of the government not being allowed to shut down our communications is the occasional bomb being triggered by a cellphone, so be it.

      Amen to that. Besides which, it will only force terrorists to tech up, and use something they can't conveniently block. They only use the cellular network now, which provides opportunities to trace back and find the source, because they don't have to use packet radio.

  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:31PM (#39229155)
    The FCC is asking the wrong people. If they are unsure if they have the authority over the decision of local and state governments to take down cellular networks, the very first step should be to ask Congress. The FCC only has the authority that Congress has given it. So, the first step is to ask Congress if Congress believes that the laws that Congress has passed give the FCC this authority. If Congress' answer is no, that is the end of the discussion. If Congress' answer is yes, the next step is to determine whether or not Congress has the authority to regulate the decision of local and state governments to take down cellular networks. That is a more complicated question and more difficult one to answer, but if Congress has not delegated anyone the authority to do so, we do not need to examine the question of whether or not they have the authority to do so.
    A more difficult question is whether or not local and state governments have the legal authority to take down cellular networks, and if so, under what circumstances. However, the answer to that is independent of whether or not the FCC has the authority to regulate if and when they do so.
    • It's hard for me to understand how you think the FCC could productively ask congress to clarify anything.
      • It really does not matter whether you think congress would give the FCC a productive answer. Congress is the only group that can clarify whether or not they gave the FCC the authority to take the types of actions they are contemplating. The failure of Congress to answer the question should be interpreted as a no.
        Personally, this move by the FCC strikes me as an attempt to garner public support for an expansion of federal power. That is, the FCC knows that it does not have the statutory authority to insert
        • The congress that gave them the power is no longer around. I do agree that this move looks like an FCC attempt to increase their own power, but I think your idea of how the government should work is not a very common (or practical) one.
          • From the perspective of the law in the U.S., it is the same congress. I am more interested in government working in a way that strictly limits its powers than I am in government working in a way that is "practical". Totalitarian governments are very practical.
            • If you are interested in government working, then you are clearly interested in something practical.
              • I am not particularly interested in the government working at more than a very basic level (enforcing contract law, forcing people to respect basic property rights). Our government is currently involved in many more aspects of the lives of its citizens than I think is good.
                • What if most people want those things that the government is doing. Do you still consider it bad?
                  • Yes, just because most people want the government to run other people's lives does not mean that it is good for the government to run people's lives.
                  • What if most people want those things that the government is doing. Do you still consider it bad?

                    What if most people want a specific minority expelled from the country. Is that bad?

                    The tyranny of the majority is exactly what the government is supposed to be protecting us from....

                    • Government won't protect you from the tyranny of the majority. This has been proven over and over throughout history. If a large enough majority, for example, wants to enslave a minority, then they can. Ultimately if the people around us want to hurt us, they can.
  • The sad truth (Score:5, Informative)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:38PM (#39229189)
    If something truly is a matter of life and death, then yes of course they should do whatever needs done and let the pundits bitch about their civil rights after. If I were a police officer, agent, or whatever and the only thing standing between me and saving one or more lives was some rule about people's "liberties", I'd tell them to go to hell and do what needed done. That's what any ethical human being should do.

    That's not the problem: The problem is that the authority in this country can't be trusted. Decades of abuse of power has led the public to be generally mistrustful of authority -- and with good reason. And more often these abuses, along with their misconduct, mistakes, and every other bad thing gets swept under the rug. People who question it are outed as "terrorists", and put on watch lists for not being patriotic enough.

    The question really being asked here isn't if they should have that power or not: It's how the hell can we trust them given how badly they've abused our trust in the past? The fact that this is even newsworthy is pretty telling: We've gotten to the point where we are willing to risk our lives and those of our fellow citizens to try to hold on to what pathetically few civil privileges we have left to us. They aren't even rights anymore: We just don't want to be the next poor bastard to make the evening news so our friends, family, and coworkers can give each other furtive glances at each other and wonder how it ever came to this.

    That's the real story: That all levels of government have become so corrupt that the public no longer trusts it even in the face of a clear and present threat.
  • This is an easy question, since it's similar to the "this terrorist knows the location of an armed atomic bomb - can we torture him to save a city?" one. You simply require people (e.g. government employees) to obey such orders when lawfully received from their superiors, but make it an offense [in the case of torture, a capital offense] to initiate such orders. So anyone - e.g. the president but really anyone in the chain of command - who really believes she is likely to save a million people from a bomb

    • by artor3 (1344997)

      This deserves to get modded up. I think the disincentives you give are excessive, but the general idea is sound.

      I'd propose:
      Giving the order to torture - you must immediately be turned over to the Hague. They'll decide what to do with you.
      Giving the order for an internet shutdown - four years in prison and a fine of 150% of your net worth (thus bankrupting you, and taking a portion of your future earnings).

      Obviously a Constitutional amendment would be required, if only to prevent your VP from taking your

  • Does the FCC have the authority to [regulate local or state authorities' decision to] take down cellular networks if they determine there is an imminent threat?

    I'm not sure which scares the hell out of me more. Giving the FCC the power to do this. Or the agency that will have the power to do so if it's not the FCC. I don't like the idea of the FCC having this power, but I like the idea of DHS even less.

  • I know that the Internet is usually against government power. But people, in this case, you WANT the FCC to trump local laws. For decades now, the FCC has has the sole power to regulate antennas, emitted power, signal purity, etc. And for decades, it has done this in a positive manner, as an enabler rather than as a restriction.

    Up until now, the FCC's power has trumped the petty Napoleons in your local government. For example, your HOA might rule about the obtrusiveness of your antenna. Whether it is

  • In wartime, congress (with the help of the FCC) has shut down radio communications modes before. They've even coordinated plans to do such shutdowns on very short notice, google "CONELRAD".

    I would far rather put this in the US congress's hands via the FCC, than in local law enforcement's hands. It's not that I think the world of the current US congress, but rather it's their inability to get together and agree on ANYTHING. Contrast with local yokel law enforcement and city councils setting up a patchwork

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